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Program Leader Nkiruka Nkenke, right, hands out meals to students in the Youth Enrichment Program at Harder Elementary School on Thursday, March 27, 2014 in Hayward, Calif. Hayward is halfway through a $25 million, five-year Promise Neighborhood grant that is pouring money into schools that serve the Jackson Triangle. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

HAYWARD -- Wearing a bright lime-green safety vest, Principal Hector Garcia walked quickly to a strategic spot on the Harder Elementary school grounds, getting there just as the day's final bell rang.

"Hey, how are you? Walking, folks; walking down the halls, please! See you tomorrow!" he said to the children pouring out of the doors.

Within minutes, the courtyard was cleared, but instead of going home, almost half the students headed to classes for English learners and those falling behind in school, homework help and enrichment.

This school and the ethnically diverse, low-income Jackson Triangle area around it are two years into a dramatic transformation of its educational landscape, using a $25 million, five-year federal grant called Promise Neighborhood.

Rather than focus simply on schools, Promise Neighborhood is creating a "cradle to college" path for more than 2,000 young people that begins before children are born, with nurses visiting pregnant women in their homes, and supports all aspects of their development as they progress through their education.

At Harder, the children arriving for their after-school classes eat first.

"We made sure the kids get an extra meal in the afternoon," said Annette Gaspar, site coordinator for the school district's Youth Enrichment Program. "Research has linked children eating healthy food to how well they learn."

Then, the kids get down to business. In one classroom, children put on headsets and logged onto a self-paced computer English program. In another, students clapped each time a girl reading a story out loud came to one of the day's "cool" vocabulary words.

In Tiffany Phan's enrichment class, students wore hand-decorated masks for a readers theater, taking roles as Cool Coyote, Farmer Joe, Farmer Jack and three narrators.

Children's small voices filled a fourth room with "The Moose Song," miming his actions as they sang, "The moose's name was Fred/He liked to drink his juice in bed."

"The classes are engaging and fun, but the students are still learning," said Gonzalo Nunez, coordinator for the enrichment program.

Hayward was one of five winners nationwide in the first round of Promise Neighborhood grants in 2012. Since then, more have been awarded, including one in San Francisco. Cal State East Bay coordinates the Hayward grant, working with the school district, the city, agencies and nonprofit groups.

Harder Elementary School principal Hector Garcia, center, talks with students on Thursday, March 27, 2014 in Hayward, Calif.  Hayward is halfway through a
Harder Elementary School principal Hector Garcia, center, talks with students on Thursday, March 27, 2014 in Hayward, Calif. Hayward is halfway through a $25 million, five-year Promise Neighborhood grant that is pouring money into schools that serve the Jackson Triangle. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Many of the programs already existed, but Promise Neighborhood pulled them together and beefed them up with more cash. The program is based on the Harlem Children's Zone, a 1970s New York anti-truancy program that gradually brought together agencies, volunteers and school communities to help low-income families beset with inadequate housing, failing schools, crime and poor health.

Promise is creating a basis for lasting collaboration among Hayward and Alameda County groups, said school district Superintendent Stanley Dobbs. "The continued success of our children will be the measure of sustainability."

Graduation rates are up slightly since the grant began, but the numbers don't tell the whole story, said Stephen Redmond, the school district's Promise Neighborhood coordinator.

"I think it would be a mistake to look at these numbers midway through the grant. We're going to show growth, but we're focused on changing the system, and you wouldn't see that until after the grant is complete," he said.

Learning at Harder continues into the evening.

Jesus and Sholeen Martinez signed up for a free evening parenting class, Parent Promise Academy, soon after their daughter, Isabella, turned 2.

"We learned so much," Jesus Martinez said. "Before, if Isabella didn't want to eat, we'd let her go play. But that can be a bad habit. It's better for her to be at the table, even if she's not eating."

The couple learned how to read nutrition labels and the ingredients to look for.

"Some breads, it won't say whole grains. You don't want that," he said. "We're educating ourselves to help Isabella. Now we can teach her the good things to eat instead of fast food. We all eat much better now."

Harder is the only school in the Jackson Triangle, but five other schools that neighborhood students attend are part of the program: Park Elementary, Winton and Cesar Chavez middle schools, and Tennyson and Hayward high schools.

, Hayward is looking at how to keep the momentum going after the grant ends in December 2016, Redmond said.

"The last thing you want to do is implement a program that has immediate success, and then the money's gone and program goes," he said.

Even students who don't take part in after-school programs benefit from the grant, which paid mentor teachers to coach colleagues. What they learn will stay with those teachers after the grant ends, Redmond said.

Some of the programs are designed to get kids thinking ahead, to keep them on track to graduate and enter college.

Once a week, a van pulls up to Harder to take fifth-grader Aquell Burrell and four other boys to Hayward's Chabot Community College, where they hang out with college student mentors. Aquell and Kalvin Charles cook, debate questions and just talk. They helped serve a community holiday meal, volunteered at a shelter and one day made bruschetta, unique in Aquell's experience.

"You're learning, but it's still a lot of fun," Aquell said.

The program run by Chabot's Striving Black Brothers Coalition uses the Big Brother model, focusing on African-American boys as they approach middle school, when their grades often drop. "I was honored to be asked to be a mentor, but I didn't think I was going to grow," Charles said. "But Aquell actually teaches me."

Aquell's mother, Anna Davis, has seen his schoolwork and attitude improve since, and he sometimes goes to the drop-in homework center.

"Aquell's part of a reading club; they have to read every day. I even buy books now. Aquell's motivated, and he motivates me," she said. "He's excited about school; he makes me a good parent."

Contact Rebecca Parr at 510-293-2473 or follow her at Twitter.com/rdparr1.

Community expo
Hayward Promise Neighborhood free 5K run and fair 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 5.
9-10 a.m.: 5K run, walk, stroll and roll at John Muir school, 24823 Soto Road
10-10:30 a.m.: Parade on Soto Road
10:30-3 p.m.: Expo, with food, entertainment, kids' activities and information, at Eden Area Greenway, on Soto between Culp and Berry avenues.
To register for the 5K run and for more information on the Promise program, go to www.haywardpromise.org.